When underworked lawyer Paul Biegler (James Stewart) returns from one of his many fishing trips, he finds he has a note waiting for him from one Laura Manion (Lee Remick): a new case for him to work on, perhaps. He lives with his best friend Parnell (Arthur O'Connell), but whereas the old fellow had once been a talented man of law himself, alcoholism has drained his spirit, much to Biegler's unspoken dismay. He would like nothing better for Parnell to assist him, and on this Manion case he could have the opportunity, as there's quite the buzz about it...
Director Otto Preminger got it into his head that he should be a trailblazer, a pioneer of stretching the boundaries of cinema, and one of the ways he did so was in the field of language. In one of his earlier films, romantic comedy The Moon is Blue, he had introduced the word "virgin" into American movies, but with Anatomy of a Murder he went quite some way further, using the fact he was depicting a court case to introduce such words as "rape", "panties", "sperm" and "sexual climax" into the vocabulary of his film, all excused because they were employed in a legal situation. At the time, what was even more shocking was that James Stewart was saying them.
Even though Stewart had broadened his range throughout the fifties with some tough roles, especially in Westerns, he still hadn't shaken off his persona of Mr Smith Goes to Washington, an overgrown boy scout at worst, a dignified man of decency at best, and certainly his public image was never controversial as he played the conservative, professional family man. But actually he had a subversive streak in his choices, not content to settle back on his laurels and keen to push himself in those films, so Anatomy of a Murder, which was pretty much a courtroom drama of the sort audiences were watching every week on the Perry Mason show, snuck in under the radar.
Except that here the lawyer played by Stewart was facing a far more ambiguous case, and many took against the film because it appeared he was trying to acquit a criminal whose innocence was far from definite. Which was what made it interesting, of course, and as the defendant, an army lieutenant named Frederick Manion was played by Ben Gazzara, an actor whose sly menace could be applied to some seriously shady characters, you're not sure you should be wanting him to get away with whatever he's on trial for. That being the murder of a bartender who, the curiously cheerful and flirty Laura claims, raped her the night Manion did the deed: can a plea of temporary insanity let him off?
Also muddying the moral waters was George C. Scott on the prosecutor's side, another brooding presence who is so cast that we do not wish him to succeed when he's up against the folksy wisdom of Biegler; really the viewer was placed in a very difficult position and a take on the law which was far from benevolent. In a skilled item of manipulation, the judge was played by Joseph N. Welch who had memorably destroyed far right senator Joseph McCarthy on television, so we cannot in all conscience feel he is on the wrong side, yet on the other hand we see a man whose guilt is evident playing the jury thanks to a terrific lawyer who is frankly in it for the money rather than any sense of justice: if Biegler wanted that, you'd assume he'd at least deliberately try to lose the case, and he assuredly does not. In its faithfulness to the book it was based on (a true story) the plot dragged for far too long, and at times it was like a filmed piece of theatre complete with audience in the courtroom laughing and gasping on cue, but there was plenty to intrigue in a deceptively scathing look at the legal system. Music by Duke Ellington (who cameos).